Join Fox News for access to this content
Plus special access to select articles and other premium content with your account - free of charge.
Please enter a valid email address.

It’s not unusual for college students to jog along the dirt trails that weave around Lake Herrick and various intramural fields on the south part of the University of Georgia’s campus in Athens.

That’s what Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student at Augusta University, set out to do on Thursday morning, as she did many mornings, but Riley didn’t come home this time.

Her roommate contacted campus police to report her missing, and within half an hour, authorities found Riley dead in a wooded area behind the lake with "visible injuries."

That morning, 26-year-old Jose Antonio Ibarra, an illegal immigrant from Venezeula living in an apartment building that sits on the edge of the park where Riley was running, allegedly murdered the aspiring nurse in what UGA Police Chief Jeffrey Clark described as a "crime of opportunity."


Laken Riley in a medical coat in a grassy field

Laken Riley, a nursing student, was found dead near a lake on campus on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Allyson Phillips/Facebook)

Ibarra is now facing charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another.

Riley died of blunt force trauma, Clark said during a Friday evening press conference announcing Ibarra’s quick arrest.

Jose Antonio Ibarra Mugshot

Jose Ibarra was taken into custody on Friday by the UGA Police Department in connection with Riley's death. (Clarke County Sheriff's Office)

The scenic loop Riley ran that morning is easily accessible from behind Ibarra’s apartment complex. It is a five-minute walk from Ibarra’s door to the approximate scene where Riley was found dead.


An exterior view of Jose Antonio Ibarra’s apartment

An exterior view of Jose Antonio Ibarra’s apartment in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Ibarra has been charged with the murder of Laken Riley after she was found dead along a walking trail on campus. (Mark Sims for Fox News Digital)

An Athens local named Dominic who spoke with Fox News Digital said he’s been walking the same loop in Oconee Forest Park, a 60-acre natural area, since he was 14. Dominic is 51 now, with an old dog who doesn’t enjoy walking as much as his owner does. 

The part of the trail where Riley was located near a retention pond has always seemed "eerie" to him. There are no visible security cameras or blue lights in the area.

An Athens local walks his dog around a Lake Herrick pedestrian loop

An Athens local walks his dog around a Lake Herrick pedestrian loop, part of which he described as "eerie." (Mark Sims for Fox News Digital)

"It’s great if you’re on a bike, going fast, but if you’re walking, unless you have a big German Shepherd with you – I wouldn’t want my mom and sister walking here alone."

The reason that specific part of the trail creeps him out, Dominic said, is because of the railroad tracks and apartment buildings that border the area. There are no fences separating the UGA-owned park from the buildings.


UGA said in a Friday news release "there is no higher priority for [the] campus than the safety and security of all who live and work here."

"We have put in place comprehensive measures to protect our students, faculty, staff, and guests — including $16 million invested over the last eight years to hire more police officers, install more security cameras, enhance lighting, establish a nightly rideshare program, and create a UGASafe app," the school said. "But we are committed to doing even more. Earlier this week, we approved an additional phase of lighting improvements and security camera installations, and we will continue to evaluate our safety programs for further enhancements. This is an ongoing and exhaustive effort."

The university recently cut down "overgrown" cattails in that specific part of the trail to give pedestrians better visibility – to make it feel safer, Dominic said. Another regular walker, Cheri Smithson, also noted the recently mowed cattails.

"It’s never felt right to me."

— Dominic, Athens local

The trail was abnormally quiet on a sunny Saturday morning after Riley’s death. Usually, the trail is so busy on nice-weather weekends that pedestrians wearing headphones can be seen bumping into each other, Dominic said. The off-leash dog owners and on-leash dog owners argue with one another.

Not this Saturday. Only regulars showed; Smithson left a bouquet of yellow ranunculuses at the scene where Riley was found.

"Everybody – they'll say, that's the spot where your head's on a swivel.… It's a scary spot," Smithson said.


Cheri Smithson leaves flowers for Laken Riley along Lake Herrick

Cheri Smithson leaves flowers for Laken Riley along Lake Herrick on the University of Georgia’s campus in Athens, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Mark Sims for Fox News Digital)

Riley’s slaying has left the UGA community "reeling," said Michelle, the mother of a female student. 

"It’s unsettling to me to think there are people in pockets around the country that are unstable and could commit crimes," she told Fox News Digital.

Laken Riley smiles for a photo while running

Laken Riley smiles for a photo while running. (Laken Riley/Instagram)

Michelle, a UGA alum, said she’s told her daughter countless times to be careful when she walks alone, to only go running with her lab, to be aware of her surroundings when drinking at night with friends.

"It's a mother's worst nightmare."

— Michelle, UGA parent

"It shakes people to their core because it makes people realize there’s a dirty underbelly we don’t see," she said. "My heart breaks. I’ve been praying for [Riley’s] mom every time she comes to mind."

Laken Riley smiles wearing a brown top

Laken Riley poses for a photo posted to Facebook. (Laken Riley/Facebook)

Riley's family posted a statement on Saturday, describing the 22-year-old as "an amazing daughter, sister, friend and overall person."

"Her love for the Lord was exemplified in every aspect of her life. She will be missed every day, but we promise to honor her life moving forward in a very big way," the statement shared with WXIA read, in part. "During this most difficult time, we ask that you respect our privacy, and provide us the time and space necessary to grieve our daughter’s life that was tragically cut short."

Laken Riley poses for a photo posted to Facebook

Laken Riley's family posted a statement, describing her as "an amazing daughter, sister, friend and overall person." (Laken Riley/Facebook)

Ibarra’s neighbors told Fox News Digital that police swarmed the parking lot of their complex on Thursday and Friday. Authorities sat Ibarra in a lawn chair outside his apartment – where he lived with his older brother, Diego Ibarra, and two others – and questioned him. They took Jose into custody first and then his brother, who has been charged with green card fraud.

"I just got a weird vibe from him," one neighbor said of Jose.


An exterior view of Jose Antonio Ibarra’s apartment in Athens, Georgia

An exterior view of Jose Antonio Ibarra’s apartment in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Mark Sims for Fox News Digital)

Another female neighbor said she’d spoken to him once or twice in passing and never thought anything unusual about him.

A Clarke County magistrate judge on Saturday morning denied Ibarra’s bond "for today" because the magistrate court does not have the authority to set bonds for certain felonies.

Jose Antonio Ibarra’s court appointed lawyer and translator arrives at the Athens-Clarke County Jail

Jose Antonio Ibarra’s public defender and translator arrive at the Athens-Clarke County Jail in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Mark Sims for Fox News Digital)

Ibarra wore a red jumpsuit and shackles in court, and he nodded when translators spoke to him. His public defender said Ibarra understands the charges filed against him.


The 26-year-old suspect illegally crossed into the United States through El Paso, Texas, in September 2022 and was released into the U.S. via parole, three ICE and DHS, sources told Fox News.

Fox News' Bill Melugin contributed to this report.